Don’t do the crime if you can’t pay the fine

7 april 2011 | In Crime Ethics Moral Psychology Psychology | Comments?

1229554926726ls0So here is a simple, and certainly misleading, model of Crime and Punishment: When you are pondering whether you should commit a certain crime or not, you make a calculation: What is the probability that you will succeed? What will be gained if you do? What is the probability that you will be caught? What will happen to you if you are?

If the value of the probability of success times the value of what you gain is larger than the value of probability of getting caught times the value of the punishment, then it would seem to be rational to go for it. So far, so much cost-benefit analysis.

This reasoning, you might have noticed, is purely based on self-interest and that is, basically, what is wrong with it. You may get a moral argument to favor committing the crime if the values included in the the calculation includes not just the values for you but for everyone affected by the criminal act. Typically, then, if you rob someone poorer than you are, the value of your gain will presumably be lower than the value of their loss. So you shouldn’t do that, but Robin Hood -actions might be morally acceptable. In addition, if there is a gross benefit in you getting caught (people love to see a criminal caught, say. You may be the best thing ever on ”cops”), you may have a reason to commit the crime no matter the potential gain to you by success.

To back up this model, we can offer an idea of the law not as a list of prohibitions, but as a list of costs. Thus you can buy a murder at the prize of limited freedom for 20 years, say.

If cost-benefit analysis is the way to understand the criminal mind, there are clearly four things we can do to make crime less likely:

1)Improve security, so that probability of success gets lowered

2) Improve conditions for would-be criminals, so that the value of gaining something by theft, say, is lowered.

3) Increasing resources for the police, so that the probability of getting caught gets higher, or

4) Increase punishment levels, so that the cost of getting caught gets higher.

In fact, 2) can be achieved in a number of ways, the most cuddly of which is getting would-be criminals to care about societal values and the well-being of would-be victims. The negative impact on the victim would then become part of the ”cost” of the crime, even from a self-interest point of view. It’s also notable that under 4), there would seem to be an obvious way to stop crime entirely: to make every crime a capital offense.

It’s noteworthy that people differ when it comes to assigning values to all of these factors. If my life is not very nice, a prison sentence, or even a capital punishment, would not make it that much worse. Indeed, there are cases when criminals judge it to be the best available option. If I’m a very skilled criminal, probability of success is high and probability of getting caught is low. And if I’m not very well off, the value of the gain may be very high indeed. If people are cost-benefit machines, some people are rationally justified in committing crimes it would be irrational for others to commit.

A question arise: should the rationality of the crime have an impact on the punishment we deem to be appropriate? Should we punish crimes that are rational from the criminal’s point of view more, or should we punish the irrational criminal more? But if we do, this change in punishment level must be included in the calculation made by the criminal! The crime that would be rational if judged by an independent standard might become irrational if punished more harshly because it was rational! A pretty paradox, isn’t it?

(There would also be a cost-benefit analysis from the legislators view-point, of course, but this return to blogging has gone on quite long enough, I think)

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